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Federal environmental regulators have put forward proposed guidelines on how to destroy and dispose of certain toxic chemicals, known as per- and polyfluoralkyl substances (PFAS), which are found in some types of firefighting foam and other products, and have caused widespread water contamination.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a press release on December 18, announcing interim guidance on the disposal and destruction of PFAS, and products containing the toxic chemicals, under what the agency calls an “aggressive” PFAS Action Plan.
The basics of the plan were laid out late last month, and involved requiring wastewater treatment facilities to develop plans for removal of PFAS from treated water, and the dissemination of information on how to properly test for the presence of PFAS in wastewater.
This latest guidance includes descriptions of the proper use of thermal treatment, the use of landfills and underground injection technologies. It addresses the use of PFAS in many different products, including aqueous film-forming foam used to combat certain types of fires.
Aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF) has been used for decades to fight petroleum-based fires, which cannot be controlled or subdued by water alone. However, many versions of the fire foam contained PFAS chemicals, which are commonly referred to as “forever chemicals” because they can take decades to break down. They can also build up in the water, soil or human body, increasing the risk of cancer and other injuries.
In the United States, a number of communities around military bases, airports and other firefighter training locations have been found to contain high levels of PFAS in local water sources, which are often difficult to remove.
In addition to AFFFs, the guidance addresses soil and biosolids, non-consumer textiles, used filters, membranes and other filtering waste generated by wastewater treatment plants, landfill leachate, and solid, liquid or gas waste streams from manufacturing facilities contaminated with PFAS.
“With this interim guidance, EPA is providing important scientific information on available technologies that can assist with the destruction and disposal of PFAS,” EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said in the press release. “This action is a critical part of our efforts to increase the understanding of PFAS and support our federal, state, tribal and local partners as we address these emerging chemicals of concern.”
In addition to guidance on proper disposal, the EPA is providing additional guidelines on how to test air, water and soil for the presence of PFAS.
The agency is accepting public comment on the interim guidance for 60 days following publication in the federal register, and, if approved, the guidance will be reviewed and revised at least once every three years.
The new strategies come as chemical and safety equipment manufacturers face hundreds of firefighting foam lawsuits pending nationwide, including claims presented by local governments and water districts, as well as claims brought by former firefighters diagnosed with testicular cancer, kidney cancer, pancreatic cancer and other injuries after direct exposure to the chemicals.
Given common questions of fact and law raised in the PFAS litigation, all cases filed throughout the federal court system are currently centralized in the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina for coordinated discovery and pretrial proceedings, where small groups of water contamination cases and cancer claims are being prepared for early trial dates.